June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3 (06/18/2010)

Lettergrade: B+

Although I liked the first Toy Story well enough when I saw it in 1995, it wasn't until Pixar's next two movies - 1998's A Bug's Life and 1999's Toy Story 2 - that I really became enamored with the richness and quality of what the company was putting out. Toy Story 2 especially is one that I still consider to be a near-perfect movie: It's clear, exciting storytelling that has a powerful thematic thrust and brims with depth, originality and fun. As far as I go, it's the gold standard against which all other computer animated pictures are judged, and none have been able to match (although 2007's Ratatouille got close). Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars... they all simply felt like they were revisiting ideas that Toy Story 2 had already handled much better.

As such, from the moment it was announced that there would be a third Toy Story, I somewhat dreaded how the Pixar folks would try to continue everything. The previous one had concluded so beautifully and poetically that it simply felt like there wasn't much more to say. 2 was about Woody coming to terms with the fact that someday Andy would grow up and would probably move on from wanting to play with him. Nevertheless, he made the decision that in spite of the risk, he wouldn't miss out on it for anything; The idea being that it's better to live a good life and enjoy the ride while it lasts instead of living forever in a state of isolation and never having the ups and downs.

Toy Story 3 picks up years and years later, when Andy is getting ready to leave for college. Only a handful of toys are left in Andy's room (several having been broken or sold), and Woody is reluctantly facing the abandonment that he had decided to accept toward the end of the last movie. The rest of the toys, long neglected, live in fear of a long stint up in the attic, or worse yet, the junk yard. Instead, they decide to slip into a box headed for a daycare center across town and off toward the plot line for another sequel.

Thematically, the movie seems to revolve around that old classic: the K├╝bler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, then ultimately Acceptance). The way some of the stages play out (particularly that last one) make for several very powerful screen moments, however, I'm not convinced Toy Story 3 found as strong a reason to exist as 2 did. Nevertheless, it's wonderful to see these characters back in action once more and it winds up being a very pleasurable adventure all the same. However, I will caution that it's one that sends our beloved characters through several incarnations of purgatory: through a long period of neglect, to a prison gulag for toys where toddlers abuse them and they're tortured by bigger meaner toys, and finally to the river Styx where our heros literally face being chopped and burned while on their way to hell in a sequence that I'd imagine will terrify most children who see it.

The first half hour or so of 3 really rubbed me the wrong way, frankly, because it seemed to horribly betray the peace that Woody had reached when we last saw him. This whole aspect of 3 in relation to the end of 2 made me think of the scene in Young Frankenstein where Gene Wilder tells his assistants that he will bravely lock himself into a room with the Monster for as long as it takes in an attempt to tame him... only to break down crying almost instantly, begging to be let out. It's not until the toys realize they need to escape from Sunnyside Daycare as fast as possible that everything really starts to gel and the picture recaptures the spark of the earlier two.

But what of that spark, and why does it take the movie a little bit of time in order to find its footing? I have a theory. Those involved with the first Toy Story used to comment about how it was a technical miracle that the movie reached its 81 minute running time and got finished at all. 2, clocking in about 10 minutes longer, was of course a massive challenge as well; the movies were getting visually more sophisticated but the company's resources were better and they had already been through a few features at that point. 3 comes in at nearly 2 hours, and seems to let itself ramble and meander a bit more than its predecessors did. Because those earlier movies had stricter limitations, I suspect the story department, then led by the late and irreplaceable Joe Ranft, made sure that every frame and every scene of the movie did something. Watch Toy Story 2 again... notice how efficiently the film sets up Woody's problem, and how fast it gets him out the door and into the hands of the villainous toy collector... all while continuing to feel very light and breezy. It's does it all in 4 or 5 scenes spanning about 10 minutes of a very tight, structurally sound movie.

In addition to the minor structure / pacing issues, though, another issue I had was that the picture recycles a little too much from previous entries in the series. Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty) has an awful lot of similarities to Stinky Pete from part 2. Even the way his story concludes at the end of the movie is pretty much identical. And come to think of it, wasn't the "five stages of grief" bit used to great extent for Up last year as well? Man, these guys need to mix it up a little or they're going to get a reputation as the computer animated death company.

In any case, though, Toy Story 3 is a fine movie overall and a good night at the cinema. As I was saying, I sort of lived in fear of the day that Pixar would attempt to make it, much as I feel franchises like The Godfather, Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee should never have been dusted off and given another spin a decade or two after their prime. I guess I'm a little disappointed that Toy Story 3 didn't have me doing cartwheels out of the theater like the first two movies did, but then I realized that my age has doubled since part 1 came out and such behavior would probably look pretty stupid anyway.

My journal entry on the Toy Story Double Feature that was out last October.


  1. Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles was an abomination for longtime fans of the first two. I left the theater halfway through, and upon arriving at home, promptly took down my signed posters of the first two. I even sold off my Paul Hogan "just in case" sperm sample. Having said that, I know the next question you'll ask is, "Did you get rid of the Linda Kozlowski panties?" And the short answer is not exactly. The long answer is that they never were her actual panties. I got those from my aunt's house and had a girl from school sign them at lunch. She didn't even spell Linda's last name correctly (I mean, who could?).

  2. This might be the single greatest comment I've ever seen on anything. My hats off, sir (or madame).